What is the difference between practicing for performance (short term) versus practicing for learning (long term)? During this extended learning at home time, explore ways that your learners can become empowered to know how to maximize study and learning time to gain the greatest learning (permanent change). Learning how to learn is a critical life skill.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:41 Hello and welcome to the Parent Wellbeing and Student Learning During School Closures Edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. With the extended closing of schools, we as parents have entered into a new territory regarding what we have known as “school learning.” With this and future podcasts, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner.
Steve : 01:14 The role of difficulty and struggle in learning. Throughout this series of podcasts for parents, I’ve been stressing how parents can invest this time with their learners to develop learning how to learn skills. In this podcast, I want to explore the role of working with difficulties and struggling or grappling in order to maximize learning outcomes. How do you feel about this statement? “You can’t be good at something unless you’re willing to be bad at first.” How often have you found yourself quitting when trying to learn a new skill because you were too uncomfortable with being bad? I know that sometimes I haven’t even begun learning a new skill out of fear of looking foolish. I have an example of the opposite. As I watch my wife practice her skills working on a potter’s wheel, lots of throwaways which she examines to learn from her failures. Elizabeth and Robert Bork wrote an article called “Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning.”
Steve : 02:39 They describe the difference between practicing something for performance versus practicing for learning. When practicing for performance, we tend to look for ways to learn enough as easily and quickly as possible to perform well, but learning doesn’t last. Does any of this sound familiar to you? The way I practice these problems in an extended block of time with repetition of the same problem, caused me to do well on the quiz that the teacher gave at the end of the day – performance. I studied vocabulary words for an hour the night before the test and scored well – performance at the end of basketball practice. I stayed late and shot 50 foul shots. My percentage of shots that go in increases during my practice time – performance. This improvement in performance suggests that my practice strategy was successful so I’m likely to return to use that practice strategy often. The problem is my learning, permanent change, hasn’t happened.
Steve : 04:01 My percentage of foul shots during a game hasn’t increased. The vocabulary words that are on the test that I pass each week are not showing up in any of my writing. And next year’s math teacher is surprised that the standards last year’s teacher said I mastered, seem totally new to me today. Consider this study that was done with eight year olds and 12 year olds who practice throwing beanbags at a target on the floor when they were blindfolded just before the point of throwing. For each group, half of the children did all of their practice throwing to a target at a fixed distance. For example, three feet for the eight year olds, while the other half threw two targets that were closer or further away. After the learning sessions and a delay time, all the children were tested at the distance that was used for the fixed practice group.
Steve : 05:08 In other words, three feet. Common sense would suggest that the children who practiced at the tested distance would perform better than those who had never practiced at that distance, but the opposite was true for both age groups. The benefits of variation, perhaps learning something about adjusting the parameters of the motor program that corresponds to the throwing motion, outweighed any benefits of being tested at the practiced condition. Many other studies have shown that when testing after training takes place under new conditions, the benefits of variation during the practice time get even greater. This example shows up for me as I’ve been studying German on Duolingo, an app on my phone. Most of my practice activities are made up of about 20 examples. Within that 20 examples, it jumps back and forth in form. Sometimes going from English to German, sometimes German to English. Sometimes they read a sentence to me and I have to repeat.
Steve : 06:31 Other times, I have to read the word. That constant variation of my response is present throughout. So what might we do to support our learners in practicing for learning? Meaning permanent change rather than practicing for performance, which is short term change. Number one, mix it up. Avoid practicing the same thing the same way, over and over. Mix the new vocabulary words they’re studying with words that were previously studied. Switch from matching vocabulary words to the definition to drawing a picture of the definition or using the word in a sentence. Go back and forth between solving new word problems in math with previously solved problems that needed or used a different formula or approach. Number two, space out practice and study sessions. This is called distributed practice. Although massing practice, for example, cramming for exams supports short term performance spacing, practice distributing presentation and study or training attempts over time, supports longterm retention, learning.
Steve : 08:08 The benefits of spacing on longterm retention have been demonstrated for all manners of materials and tasks, types of learners and timescales. It is one of the most general and robust effects from across the entire history of experimental research on learning and memory. Again, this can be difficult because learners have experienced that pay off of studying for performance and doing well on the test. Missing the fact that very often that study time was in effect wasted when one looks back on the learning outcome. Number three, ask learners how to make the task a little bit harder, a little bit harder than the performance will actually require. The right amount of stretch or challenge increases learning. Consider if you wanted to improve your performance in a sport or a skill, it’s best to play with someone who’s a little bit better than you, not too much better or you’ll feel defeated and give up.
Steve : 09:30 Help your learners to figure out how to add just a little bit to get the right challenge. By increasing the difficulty of the task, they will enhance their learning. I’ll bet some of you have already observed your children doing this on their own with a game or a skill. They’re trying to put something into the basket and though they’ll stretch back to a level that’s a little bit harder than the one that they previously were successful at. That right amount of challenge is the key to increasing the learning outcome. Let me close out with two quotes from Borks on this concept of creating appropriate difficulty for learning. “For those of you who are students, take a more active role in your learning by introducing desirable difficulties into your own study activities. Above all, try to rid yourself of the idea that memory works like a tape recorder or a video recorder and that just re-exposing yourself to the same material over and over again will somehow write it into your memory.
Steve : 10:55 Rather, assume that learning requires an active process of interpretation. Mapping new things we’re trying to learn onto what we already know.” And I’ll conclude with another quote that I think is perfect for parents from the Borks. Finally, “We cannot overstate the importance of learning how to manage your own learning activities. In a world that is evermore complex and rapidly changing and in which learning on one’s own is becoming ever more important, learning how to learn is the ultimate survival tool.” I hope you find some strategies in this podcast that you can use and again, let me stress that I’d be happy to take any of your questions in order to shape future podcasts. Keep learning and remember that the same is true for you as for your child. Some struggle and some challenge can increase the learning. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 12:10 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.